World Cup stars Morocco seek end to 48-year African trophy drought

Noussair Mazraoui (right) in action for Morocco. File photo

Morocco coach Walid Regragui was just five months and 20 days old when the country won the Africa Cup of Nations for the only time in 1976.

In the second and last tournament decided by a mini-league, Morocco snatched a late 1-1 draw with Guinea to finish first in Ethiopia.

As Moroccans celebrated conquering Africa then, few could have imagined that 48 years later the Atlas Lions would still be seeking a second title, given the country is a continental football powerhouse.

The closest they have come to a second triumph was in 2004 when Regragui was the right-back in a team beaten 2-1 by hosts Tunisia in the final.

But while the Cup of Nations has been an endless tale of disappointments, Morocco soared to dizzy heights at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, becoming the first African and Arab semi-finalists.

Given little chance of surviving a group including Belgium and Croatia, they not only did so but eliminated Spain and Portugal before falling to France in the semi-finals.

“What we did at the World Cup was unbelievable. We put Africa on the world map,” said the 48-year-old born in a southern Paris suburb.

After the stunning World Cup showing, the pressure on Morocco to achieve further glory has intensified with some pundits labelling them “red-hot favourites” to win the 2024 Cup of Nations.

They will face two former champions, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia, and outsiders Tanzania in Group F in the Ivory Coast, where the tournament kicks off on Saturday.

‘Curse of African Cup’ 

Assuming they qualify for the knockout stage, four more hurdles must be cleared if Morocco are to end what Regragui calls “the curse of the African Cup”.

In their last seven Cup of Nations appearances, the Atlas Lions have never got past the quarter-finals, and suffered a stunning last-16 loss to minnows Benin in 2019.

Regragui is not buying the “red-hot favourites” line, telling reporters that “there are at least 10 teams that can win the Cup of Nations.

“We are not the favourites. There are better teams than us on the continent. Since the World Cup in Qatar many countries have progressed.

“Teams like Algeria, Egypt, the Ivory Coast and Nigeria, none of whom qualified for the World Cup, are among the favourites.

“Any team can beat any other at the Cup of Nations. There is no such thing as an easy group. To win the African Cup you have to be extremely strong.”

DR Congo, a force in the distant past when they qualified for a World Cup and were African champions twice, are back under French coach Sebastien Desabre after missing out in 2022.

Potentially the biggest threat to Morocco in the group, the Leopards boast an outstanding defender in Chancel Mbemba and a Premier League forward in Yoane Wissa from Brentford.

“I am hoping we can at least reach the quarter-finals, while Morocco must be favourites to lift the trophy,” says Desabre.

Since a penalty shootout victory over hotly fancied Ivory Coast in the 2012 final, Zambia have slumped and failed to qualify for the last three editions.

“To be part of the group that has taken Zambia back where it belongs is a great achievement,” says Leicester City forward Patson Daka, who netted five times in the qualifiers.

Tanzania share with fellow qualifiers Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Mozambique and Namibia the goal of winning at the tournament for the first time.

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